Great literature can expose us to the lives and experiences of people we otherwise wouldn’t encounter on our own, helping to foster empathy and understanding with our fellow humans, while still keeping us entertained. In his debut collection, Anthony Veasno So sets out to do just that. Born in Stockton, California to Cambodian parents who had fled the country during the genocide of the late 1970’s conducted by the Khmer Rouge, he went on to earn 2 degrees from Stanford and Syracuse Universities and saw his stories published by prestigious magazines and journals like The New Yorker, Granta, and n+1, the latter of which has launched an award named in his honor. Tragically, he passed away late last year, a loss which is felt very deeply after reading this accomplished collection.
He draws heavily from his experiences growing up in a Cambodian-American community and as an adult having “made it”. The stories aren’t autobiographical per se, but they feel lived-in in a way that they could not if they had been written by an outsider. In plain but elegant prose, he excels at building memorable characters in different phases of life, as the stories move from the relative innocence of youth up to the pressures and insecurities of adulthood. That thematic flow and the connective tissue of the Stockton neighborhood that helps to bind these 9 stories, give the collection the feel of a sprawling novel.
There are themes present that will be relatable to anyone, regardless of background, but it’s the uniquely Khmer perspectives and the personal demons that the author himself was dealing with that truly make this book stand out. Feelings of isolation and otherness flow throughout, even when the characters have a seemingly strong support structure, though this winds up feeling especially acute among the young adults who have branched out on their own, trying their best to fit in while unsure if they even want to. The relatively recent nature of the massive tragedy that was thrust upon their people also means that the memories and lessons of such an event are still fresh in their community, and never far from anyone’s minds.
But this book isn’t set on wallowing in misery. These characters share the author’s wry sense of humor, as perhaps only the survivors and descendants of great devastation can, and experience moments of great beauty as well. This is a joy to read that will easily be remembered as one of the best books of the year and hopefully will receive a chance even among those who have an aversion to short story collections. Veasna So expertly and gracefully exposes the lives of an underrepresented people to us all, while touching on universal emotions and ultimately reminding us “how silly [we are] to see our pain as situated in time, confined to the past, contained within it.” ★★★★★
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor